Friday, 27 June 2014

GUEST BLOG: Window Shopping in Steam

My dad used to own a shop. It was a men's clothing store. He was in business for a long time (over 50 years) and only recently retired. I've learnt a few things from his experience managing a small store. One of them I remember quite clearly is related to the shop window. He used to say that no matter what you put in certain spot in the window it will sell well. If you put something good then you'll sell truckloads of it, if it's something mediocre then it'll simply sell better than it ought to.

The store had 2 windows, a big one, where the 'sweet spots' (there were a couple I think) were placed, and a smaller one, on the side. In that smaller one he usually put stuff that was new or on sale, last pieces of last year's items, etc. He changed that one more often because it was there to serve a purpose (increase the sales of what was there) not to attract people to the store (that's the main window's purpose).

My dad's store as it appears in Google Maps. The side window isn't even visible from this angle

I can't but find similarities between how my dad's store worked and how Steam works. You have your main window (the big banner with game pictures that appear when you open Steam) and you have your side windows (the 'New Releases', the 'Top Sellers',...). If Steam thinks your game is a great game (or is going to be a great seller) you'll make it to the main window, otherwise you'll be in the side window ('New Releases') for a while and only if you prove to be good enough, move to the main one.

As of lately we're hearing a lot about nay sayers talking about the indie bubble. They argue that the amount of games published on Steam is going to drown the good indie games. I don't think that's what's going to happen. Indie hits are going to go on happening and Steam is going to support them just as much as they did in the past. The problem is going to affect niche indie games. There are a lot of games being published every day in Steam now. We released Super Toy Cars on June the 7th, along with 27 other games! What's the effect of that? Our side window time was reduced to mere hours (8-10 hours).

When we launched LightFish in 2011 the game stayed in the 'New Releases' first page for over a week. That's 15-20 times longer! That means we found then a lot more people that liked the niche genre of the game and it showed in our sales.

Still, blaming Valve for opening the gates to everyone is neither fair, smart or, more importantly, a solution. Actually, I believe there's no one to blame. How could you blame anyone for doing what you do (releasing a game on Steam) or for giving them that chance? I personally don't like many of the games but then again I'm stupid and I might have the same opinion about Minecraft if I didn't know better. Only the market has the right to decide what's worth it and what's not.

So, what can we do about it? Well, the first thing we should do is make sure we have good games worth playing. Then marketing them the right way. Make sure there's buzz about your game. You've tried e-mailing the main webpages and youtubbers and they are ignoring you? Maybe you need to do something different, something better, more unique with your game or the way you communicate it. Be it releasing the game in additional platforms, polishing a long forgotten genre or adding something unique to it, mixing two genres in innovative ways, creating something completely new, or presenting your game to everyone dressed in a pink suit or, better, do a combination of these.

Alexander Bruce not only had unique style but also an outstanding game in his hands (Antichamber)

You can do anything to try to get our game noticed by the press and thus by the public. Anything but blaming Valve because your window time is now a small portion of what it used to be. Now we have to work to get noticed while before just being in Steam gave you that marketing for free. Deal with it and find solutions to the problem!

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go pick my green suit from the laundry.

This blog was written by Eduardo Jimenez from Eclipse Games. Eduardo will be talking in the Production track at the upcoming
Develop Conference 8 - 10 July, Brighton

Monday, 23 June 2014

GUEST BLOG: Life Moves Pretty Fast

Wondering whether to attend this year’s Develop Conference? Stop wondering, and commit. Commit right now. Clear your diary. Book your train ticket. THIS IS IMPORTANT.

To quote Ferris Bueller: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it”.

Everything is changing. Everything is always changing. Novelty, imagination, surprise and experimentation are fundamentally embedded into games culture and markets. We bestride the twin galloping horses of technology and culture like giggling, partially-blindfolded, stunt riders. Our job is to make millions of people do things they’ve never done before - while our platforms, models and markets are in a continual state of turbulence.

This month, Amazon announced a phone that tracks your head movements. Didn’t they used to sell books? Cloud Imperium revealed that they have 260 people working on Star Citizen. Didn’t you used to need a publisher to make a game like that?

So stop and look around once in a while. Remind yourself that games are made by people; people more or less like you - and that they’re ultimately FOR people, too. Good analytics will give you excellent insight into the way your players are behaving right now; but if you want them to stay with you next year, you’ll need a taste for the future.

Get it at Develop.

Jonathan Smith is Strategic Director at TT Games, and
a member of the Develop in Brighton Advisory Board.

Monday, 16 June 2014

GUEST BLOG: Realistic Jam

Game Jams are a lot of fun to be part of. They're inherently flexible, and can last anything from an hour to several days.

Most of the jams I've been involved with have been fairly typical affairs, where a bunch of people arrive with laptops or use lab machines at a university. I've organised and hosted some really strange ones too though; Nat Marco [ ] ran one a few years ago in which people made games out of paper and rocks:

The year after that, we did "Jam Game Jam: A Game Jam With Jam", which involved throwing jam around on the deck of an East German fishing trawler:

The same day, Jonathan Whiting [ ] ran a level design workshop in which people defined rules, stuck bits of paper down onto the deck, and pranced around:

 He'd initially approached me saying he had an idea with scary spatial requirements, and I replied that I generally read "scary" to mean "exciting".

Those examples might seem esoteric compared to the day job you spend at a tablet or keyboard, but there's a lot of value in them. Games are fundamentally about rules and behaviour, and when we bind those to a given type of hardware, we're also binding them to a lot of established convention.

The technology we use isn't the pinnacle of games, it's just another branch of stuff we can express them through. Play and games have a history stretching back thousands of years, all of it relevant to the things we make.

Sure, few if any of the weirder avenues point in viable commercial directions, but that's not what jams are about. They're increasing your skills as a designer, artist or programmer, they're a way of hanging out with other developers, and if you happen to make something amazing that's probably too weird for an existing audience or platform, there's a growing throng of festivals and events worldwide that might still be interested.

A game jam is a perfect place to experiment with the strangest ideas you have. That's because beyond tech (or the intentional lack thereof), the best thing about a jam is the time constraint it imposes. It creates a space where it's okay to try something new and perhaps fail horribly, knowing that the project won't drag on.

Some of the best things I ever designed, way back, came from speed mapping contests run by the Unreal Tournament mapping community. The results were never pretty with a four hour time limit, but they were an excellent way of getting a good, solid sketch done.

Without such constraints, it's easy to get attached to something then sink too much effort into it, and I've seen even established developers do this. A game jam is above all a focussing tool. You might still become myopically attached to a duff idea, but that deadline is going to come in nice and quick to finish it off instead of letting you toil at it for months.
David Hayward [ ] wrote this blog. He will be running the Develop in Brighton Game Jam  for 2014.
Photos by Natalie Seery [ ] and Jessica Bernard [ ])

Thursday, 5 June 2014

GUEST BLOG: Industry echoes: 19 years later, the first E3 still rings in my ears

I was lucky enough to attend the first E3 back in 1995. It was, I think, my second ever trip over the Atlantic.

For a reasonably young man, whose work travels had up until then taken him to Croydon, Derby and Woking, it was overwhelmingly exciting. I stayed in the hotel through which Arnie rode a horse True Lies, and the one friends tell me Pamela Anderson took her clothes off in “The Pamela Anderson Story” (sadly no longer available, apparently).

I thought of my teachers who said I'd amount to little and imagined them still tormented by little bastards like me, cursed to a life of endlessly scrubbing chalk phalluses off their suit jackets whilst I was on a business trip to where Americans came from.

They were actually filming Heat in the streets outside. Imagine that. No do: imagine that.

For an industry which had historically sold its wares on hunks of plastic or “floppy” “disks” (technically neither, though no-one seemed to mention this) that first E3 was a sign of intent. We were moving from business shows in stuffy hotels literally to Hollywood.

Of course, as a young industry, we were hopelessly naive. Rich execs decided that the best way of showing how great their games were was to throw vast amounts of money at their stands; setting a dick-waving precedent which would escalate so quickly that apparently Peter Moore originally suggested he announce GTA4’s appearance on Xbox at the 2006 Microsoft press conference not with a fake tattoo, but by dangling the game’s logo from his still smarting Prince Albert.

Poetically, in 1995, no stand was more impressive than that of Acclaim. Standing proudly inside the main doors, where EA usually is these days, it was a nightclub of a booth, all flashing lights, massive screens and pulsating music from show open to show fucking close.

I was working on the stand next door, so I was the regular unintended victim of Acclaim’s “theme “ – a 30-second ditty which opened the 10 minute showreel. I heard it 162 times.

Now and again – close to 20 years later – it still bounces round my skull.
It went like this: “[Something, something] Acclaim, your entertainment source. Hits on every format – can you feel the force? Interactive entertainment, it’s so hot you just can’t contain it, something something something something Acclaim!”162 times.

What’s most astonishing about this song isn’t that presumably an actual human being was paid coins of money in order to write it and that other human beings didn’t think that the first human was joking, nor that it made such an indelible mark on my then young brain that even now – at an age when I genuinely occasionally forget the names of my family – I can still recall most of it.

No, what was most astonishing was, that from a marketing point of view, spending such a vast amount of money on a stand and theme song did the job – even now, when people stop me on the street to enquire as to where they can find the source of entertainment, I remind them of Acclaim before showing them some SNES and Mega Drive cartridges and pushing them over so they can feel the force.

Sadly, that’s where the story ends. These people can’t buy Turok: Evolution, WWF Wrestlemania, nor Dave Mira’s BMX XXX even if they wanted to. Which they didn’t: Acclaim went out of business in 2004 – leaving nothing more than a few gaming controversies, some brilliant PR ideas and one dreadful song.
E3 has always been about attracting attention, making the most noise, having the biggest queues. Yet, with the exception of a just couple of years when, quite rightly, publishers questioned the amount they were pouring into the building that Nicholas Cage tried to blow up in Face/Off, E3 has got bigger but not necessarily better.

The news rarely comes from the show floor any more, beamed instead globally onto monitors the day before, via grainy, buffering streams. American execs trying hard to be casual without realising they’re memes in waiting.
Fact is, if you’re a publisher in decline or a hardware manufacturer which lacks confidence to deliver your vision, chasing Twitter favourites rather than sticking to your design philosophy, attracting such vast attention is pointless unless you’re able to deliver the goods. Come see my talk at Develop this year and I’ll show you how to be Mike Bithell – current King of the Indies, deliverer of goods and, at the time of writing, someone who’s yet to resort to a theme tune.

Though it is only a matter of time.

This blog was written by Simon Byron, a director at Premier PR. Simon will be talking in the new Marketing track at Develop in Brighton on 9 July.